Mimi Yu On Empire, Shaping Characters, and More in “The Girl King”

 The debut YA author talks about her path to publication, the “soupiness” of her characters, and what she’s working on next.

The debut YA author’s “epic tale of fate, desire, family, and love” is the start of an unforgettable East Asia–inspired fantasy duology populated with nuanced characters and featuring complex world-building. The series centers on two sisters—Lu, the willful heir apparent, who is cast aside for the throne by her conniving male cousin, and Min, the seemingly frail younger sister who is chosen as the new emperor’s bride and has a hidden power of her own. Yu talks about The Girl King's (Bloomsbury, Jan. 9, 2019; Gr 9 Up) path to publication, the “soupiness” of her characters, and what she’s working on next.


What was your book’s road to publication?
Mine was the conventional, by-the-book path: I wrote the manuscript and found an (amazing) agent, and my agent sold it to my (amazing) publisher. Super easy, right? I’m kidding; there’s an enormous amount of work and collaboration and rejection and waiting (so much waiting!) that goes into each step. Thankfully, there are now a lot of wonderful free resources available online—from generous, savvy people who have been through it all to both industry and author [contacts]. I wouldn’t have known where to start without them.


What inspired you to write The Girl King?
I knew I wanted to write a big East Asia–inspired fantasy. Much of the seemingly disparate media that most influenced me as a young person, from the "Star Wars" franchise to “A Song of Ice and Fire,” and even Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, attracted me in large part because the scope of their universes, and the wide range of points of view and voices they capture. Of course, none of these universes contained people who looked like me; in writing The Girl King, I really wanted to do my part to help change that for  readers of color today. It’s been very exciting to enter the world of publishing at this moment. Thanks to the hard work of a lot of writers and industry professionals, the need for diverse books is beginning to get the attention it deserves.


Readers follow multiple protagonists in this fantasy novel. I love that they’re not always likable or even sympathetic—but I think teens will connect with them. How did you craft these nuanced characters?
Character creation is one of my favorite, most essential parts of writing! With my stories, plot very much emerges from the characters. That being said, I find the process kind of mysterious. Not to get too precious about it, but more often than not, they sort of arise out of the ether, as though there were no other way for them to be. Of course, I have to do the work of getting to know them better than they know themselves. This can look like a lot of things. I like to throw them into conversations with one another, whether or not those interactions make it into the book. I have a background in visual art, so sometimes I’ll draw them, to get a sense of the way they move, their facial expressions, how they dress and wear their hair. All of these little details end up telling me so much about them, their daily routines, and the world they inhabit.

Something I always try to keep in mind while shaping characters is how we—people—are constantly inventing various selves in order to explain ourselves to ourselves. Sometimes we do this in ways that are flattering, sometimes we need excuses for the ways in which we’ve screwed up, other times we’re just cruel and self-punishing, or it’s a bit of all of those things. There are the selves we think we are, good and bad, who we need to be, and who we want to be. And then there are who others need or want us to be. All of those selves coexist and compete, creating a bubbling, soupy mess of a person. That’s how I try to write my characters—soupy.


The sibling relationships especially ring true. Were there any real-life inspirations for them?
I have a brother, but he is 18 years my senior, so we didn’t actually grow up together. Naturally, as a kid, this made me really attentive to relationships between siblings who were growing up together—I think I was equal parts horrified and jealous of them.

In particular, I was close with a pair of sisters who lived next door to me: one was a year older and one a year younger. Often they would compete who was my “real” friend, or try to get me to take their side in an argument. When we hung out together, easily half the time was taken up with absolutely inane fights. Once, I asked them to cut the bickering because it wasn’t fun for me to sit there listening to it. They both turned on me as one and said, “Well, you can just leave, then.” Just like that, they went from wanting to tear out each other’s throats to being this solid-as-a-fist team, and I was out. I could all but feel a door slam between us. So I went home! I thought about that a lot while writing The Girl King.


The world-building is so complex and layered—from the machinations at court to the ethereal city of Yunis. What did your process for shaping these different settings entail?
Writing this world was necessarily an exercise in hybridity. The English-language resources I had access to (largely written by white Westerners) and, more crucially, the frameworks through which I digested them are entirely colored by my upbringing on Western media, canon, and overall culture. Much of the process was examining my own perspectives as a Western-born second-generation Korean Asian American imagining an East Asia–inspired world. One of the things I had to keep in mind was that the very construct of an “East Asia” has far more resonance with diasporic Asians than Asians in Asia.

I drew loosely from the late Qing Dynasty of China as a template for the Empire of the First Flame. It’s a sprawling, diverse realm founded by outsiders—both a colonizing force and one being steadily colonized itself. I was keen to explore both the structural contradictions of empire and the historically specific sense of living in a moment of sea change, when certain long-held logics of power and hierarchy were about to give way to something entirely new.

My inspiration for Yunis was significantly less academic—the visuals were influenced heavily by fantasy C-dramas, and Korean and other East Asian folk images of heavenly courts from my childhood and beyond.

And as becomes more apparent and significant in Book 2, the Ellandaise are a loose amalgamation of some major European colonial nations: the English, French, and Dutch.


Some of the weighty themes explored in your debut include classism, colonization and imperialism, and addiction. Why did you think it was important to address these in a fantasy context?
Fantasy gets derided as escapism, and, honestly, I don’t know why that’s meant to be an insult. I don’t think wanting escape is inherently bad or anti-intellectual. At times, I want to check out of this rotten world, too. I think for me and many writers and readers, fantasy isn’t so much a means of tuning out the noise as it is one for addressing trauma, big and small, in a way that gives us power over it by recontextualizing it, explaining it on our terms, and changing the perspective and the conversation around it.


This book pushes against gender stereotypes and roles in a multifaceted way. How did you go about threading this throughout the narrative?
This is a subject very close to my heart but about which I have some difficulty saying anything new or pithy! There’s been so much change in fantasy on this front since I was growing up: it’s no longer a given that if a story contains magic, it will also contain exactly one girl. I wanted to show girls who were heroes and villains, tender and unpleasant, feminine and masculine, arrogant and sure, and whiny and petty by turns. Why should they bear the burden of never being annoying or weak?

I also knew going into the book that I wanted to present characters who chafed and writhed at the ways in which they were gendered, those who felt at home in it, and others who maybe felt a little of each in different ways. This is maybe more obvious in my character Lu’s case, but it was hugely significant to the way I wrote Nok’s [male protagonist] point of view as well. There were so many times where I caught this little voice in my head saying “oh, don’t make him cry there,” or “maybe he should hit something here in anger.” It was eye-opening to see how quickly those rote notions of what a boy should or shouldn’t do overrode my sense of my own character, and how strong the impulse to follow them was. Parsing those easy, lazy impulses really gave me a stronger sense of who Nok was—and opened up so many possibilities for what he might actually do instead.


Other than a sequel, what are you working on next?
I have a couple other projects brewing, but the one I’m most excited about it is a 1990s-period fantasy about a Chosen One who wants to get into a state school, her sidekick and best friend who cheats her way into being Chosen, and how being part of a diaspora gives one the power to see demons who inhabit human flesh! I’m not sure what to call the genre, but what I’ve been mentally comparing it to generally get categorized as urban fantasy. Mine takes place in the sticks, so maybe it should be marketed as rural fantasy.

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Shelley Diaz


Shelley Diaz (sdiaz@mediasource.com) is the Reviews Editor at School Library Journal.

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